This article was originally written for Mockingbird.
I may seem like nothing but an already crotchety almost-thirty-something who has resigned himself to the “armchair analysis” stage of athletic participation. And while that holds more than a modicum of truth (a ruptured ACL and chronic back issues will do that), I also contend that the advent of the fitness culture is, indeed, a religious movement, and is, therefore, worthy of theological assessment.
I have been inundated with no small amount of social media sales pitches to implement some such contrivance or technique into my daily routine, each accompanied by the promise that the chiseled physique I’ve always dreamed of is attainable — on the condition that I try what’s being sold to me. It is nearly impossible to escape the phenomena of fitness and wellness and “life coaching.” “The best shape of my life” is now achievable, all I have to do is change this one part of my workout, add this one supplement to my diet, or just believe in myself a little bit more. Whether it’s CrossFit, Plexus, LiveFit, or any other such thing, the message is always the same: You aren’t adequate, but the secret to overcoming your inadequacy is in this supplement, this workout, this product, this thing you can do. And it is that “doing,” then, that haunts the adherents of the religion of wellness — because there’s always something else to do.
There exists an undeniable “moralism,” writes Mockingbird chief David Zahl, “that surrounds diet and dieting today . . . usually under the head of ‘wellness.’” Nutrition expert or wellness guru are the professions du jour for millennials around the globe. My Instagram newsfeed is essentially cavalcade of aspiring trainers and fitness models, whose own assortment of images tell the same story about their ventures in immortality. “The stakes,” Zahl goes on to say, “when it comes to what we consider Wellness are more than physiological — they are existential.” Our workouts tell us who we are and, more importantly, how we measure up. Working out has transcended “maintaining fitness” to “brandishing righteousness.” Instagram fitness models/gurus are evangelizing a message that’s more than just about lowering body fat percentage.
The endgame of the religions of food and fitness is the same: immortality. The nutritionists and coaches preach to us the untold benefits of hemming in our food choices and determining to make fitness a part of our daily routine, and in so doing, to save ourselves. This is how the overarching religion of wellness swells in popularity, since its endeavor is justification and the only player is you. You determine your fate. “Diet is no longer what we put into our mouths,” writes Zahl in his titular book, Seculosity. “It is a meticulous scoresheet of personal and social righteousness, the measure by which we determine our own value and other people’s . . . Diet has become the justifying story of our lives.”1 We have tied our worth to our waist lines and made indistinguishable “the number on the scale and the person standing on it,” Zahl continues.2 Your mortality is in your hands (and your mouth). So don’t screw it up!
But such is the irony of the religion of wellness. Its promises are never sure. Healthy living, mindful living, has never translated into a one-to-one ratio for longer life. Your chances are better, perhaps. Yet there have been countless examples of smokers living on while the yoga instructor dies early. Lift all the weights you want. Take all the supplements that are sold to you. But you can’t dead lift your way into life. You can’t bench press your way into happiness. The heart’s desires are never found in the gym. Fitness can’t save you. No amount of workout regimens will ever satisfy. And the rest you think you’ll find at the end of the road where you finally achieve your perfectly chiseled body will only leave you feeling more restless and more than a little sore. That’s because the promise of “achievable goals” is itself unachievable.
That is, there is no achievement in the religion of fitness. The promise of wellness is never-ending. “People are suffering and dying under the torture of the fantasy self they’re failing to become,” writes Zahl.3 There will always be someone fitter than you. Stronger than you. Healthier than you. Thinner than you. The market for personal wellness and physical fitness lacks no surplus of new gospels that promise their own physical resurrection and bodily metamorphosis.
Now, I’m not telling you not to work out, not to consider your diet, not to take care of yourself. But I am saying, don’t put all your weight in dumbbells. “There is a world of difference,” writes Zahl, “between exercise as good for us and exercise as salvation.”4 Don’t fall prey to the religion of wellness and bow at the altar of the barbell. The hope of fitness is that it promises to fix what’s wrong with your life. But at the end of the day, I can’t help but see the overt humanism at play in the religion of wellness. Perhaps we set the bar a little high. Or, if I may be so bold, perhaps we have added too many plates on the bar.
What if Jesus is enough? What if fat content, body mass, and lean proteins don’t matter in the end? What if you can’t clean-and-press as much as the next guy? I think that’s okay. Entrance into heaven has no scales, spiritual or otherwise. St. Peter will not be standing at the divine BMI checkpoint to grant or deny access to our Heavenly Lord. No such scheme of salvation exists there. Entrance into heaven is granted by one thing, faith alone. And not faith in your fitness but faith in Jesus’s weakness and death. Faith in the fact that he endured such grievances for your sake, for your salvation.
Jesus is enough. His words are true and his invitation rings as clear and as loud as ever: “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden — with cumbersome WODs and weight loss plans and diet regimens — and I will give you rest — relief and reprieve from thinking those will ever make you ‘enough.’ I will give you my rest. I will be your enough.” Or something like that.
David Zahl, Seculosity: How Career, Parenting, Technology, Food, Politics, and Romance Became Our New Religion and What to Do About It (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2019), 125–26.